You’re in a hurry. All you need is the phone number of a business contact. So you go for the quickest, easiest source – the web. Only, when you arrive at the company’s homepage, instead of instant information, an egg timer symbol appears with the words “Loading … 20% … 35%.”
Here at Building, we spend an unhealthy amount of time on construction websites and we reckon that the industry’s sites often look fantastic. The problem is that the fancier the graphics, the longer it seems to take for a site to load.
Architects and developers appear to be the worst offenders. Their websites have spectacular graphics that show off buildings with 3D animations, interactive floorplans and virtual fly-throughs. There are also quirky homepages, not to mention video clips and photo galleries. The software responsible for much of this wizardry is called Flash. It all looks amazing, but how practical are these sites?
We tested the industry’s websites to find out (see box, opposite). The results for architects were the most striking. Out of the 50 practices we tested, half didn’t even qualify for our test because they were Flash-based. This is because Flash sites can be inaccessible to certain types of user, unless they are tweaked in certain ways.
When we revealed the results of our survey last month, we sparked a big debate. People who love images – mostly web-design agencies – emailed us to defend Flash and the sites that use it. Others told us they had abandoned Flash in favour of HTML, the language web pages are written in, because they were afraid of alienating users. So who is right? It may seem like a debate for web geeks, but the state of your website can have a big impact on your business.
Martin Hornagold is not a Flash fan. He is managing director of consultant the Marstan Group and the man who conducted the surveys for us. He says slow download times are just one of the pitfalls of Flash. There is also the issue of “search engine optimisation”, to use web jargon. Search engines like Google and Yahoo recognise words, not images, so if your site uses Flash it won’t be found when someone searches for your company name.
Flash can also exclude people with disabilities. Hornagold says: “Flash cannot be read by screen readers for the blind and partially sighted. You need to have an HTML alternative site that just has text. It just needs a link that takes you to the HTML site, but it’s amazing how many Flash sites don’t do this.”
Sites like www.keppiedesign.co.uk, which came top of our survey for architects, have done well out of sticking to HTML. Keppie Design, a Scottish practice, beat big names like Scott Brownrigg (4), Atkins (5), and Foster + Partners (6) to the number one spot.
Andrew Pinkerton, a director at Keppie Design, says the site came about more by accident than design. “We haven’t done market research. We’ve been focusing on the practice and haven’t had time to look into using Flash. The site is about 18 months old, and although we constantly update the content, the format has remained the same.”
This is what has riled some web designers about our test – they reward sites for being functional and accessible but ignore the wow factor you get with Flash.
“It’s unfair to totally dismiss Flash,” says Chester Chipperfield, owner of digital agency Emak Mafu, which designs websites for architects including Stock Woolstencroft (www.stockwool.co.uk). “Flash can make a website look more attractive, interactive and dynamic, and 99% of the online population has Flash installed on their computers. It’s a must.”
Chipperfield says Flash gives designers complete control over their site. “Flash is independent of any browser, which means it shows content how designers intend it. HTML sites are hugely restricted to the technology inside the browser.”
But perhaps it isn’t a straight choice between dull-but-accessible HTML or sexy- but-difficult Flash. Developer Urban Splash relaunched its website last month and managed to find a middle way.
Carl Jordon of Elevator Digital, the web design agency that worked on the new site, says it decided to ditch Flash on its main corporate site, but use it on microsites for particular schemes. “Where there is lots of text, it’s better to use HTML,” he says, “but microsites can be 100% Flash or have Flash elements to make them more funky.”
Simon Goodall, of graphic design studio firm OPX whose clients include the RIBA and Scott Brownrigg, likes the mixed approach. He advises using HTML for text and Flash to add pizzazz. “Flash has to be treated with a bit of respect,” he says. “The accessibility issues can largely be overcome with a bit of thought, but it is best used sparingly.”
>>> Up to speed Three sites we like
This developer may have ditched Flash on its main corporate site, but it’s got some truly zany stuff on its microsite for the Chips scheme in Manchester. Here you’ll find architect Will Alsop in animation form serving up a portion of fish and chips. Bizarre.
Gleeds boss Richard Steer is so excited about this web innovation that we fear he may try a new career as a TV presenter. That said, GleedsTV has done some interesting interviews and they’re all in an easily searchable archive. Catch Steer’s work now before the BBC snaps him up.
We know that, amazingly, staring at a building site all day isn’t everyone’s bag, but it’s great that this demolition company is using its website to keep the public informed about its projects. On its homepage at the moment is 20 Fenchurch Street, where it is demolishing two eight-storey buildings and a 26-storey tower. Let’s hope we see a few explosions soon.
Top 10 construction websites
- WT Partnership, www.wtpartnership.com, surveyor 8.07
- Edward Symmons, www.edwardsymmons.com, surveyor 7.9
- Potter Raper Partnership, www.prp.gb.com, surveyor 7.84
- Keppie Design www.keppiedesign.co.uk, architect 7.75
- Mouchel Parkman www.mouchel.com, surveyor 7.35
- Southern Electric Contracting www.s-e-c.co.uk, contractor 7.3
- Stride Treglown www.stridetreglown.co.uk, surveyor 7.12
- Leslie Clark www.lclark.com, surveyor 7.1
- Bowmer & Kirkland www.bandk.co.uk, contractor 7
- Cowlin Construction www.cowlin.co.uk, contractor 7
This league table is the combination of the rankings for contractors, architects and surveyors featured in the recent Web Watch articles by Martin Hornagold in Building. The results are based entirely on automated tests completed by web tester SiteMorse. The test simulates a user visiting and browsing a website and gives it a score out of 10.
There are four main categories that are tested, which are weighted:
Function (36%) – Are there any invalid links or downloads, failed email functions etc
Performance (26%) – How long does the user have to wait for pages to load and respond to actions
Accessibility (20%) – Does the website conform to current recognised standards for accessibility
Code Quality (18%) – Does the HTML conform to current recognised standards
The scores are based on benchmarks derived from hundreds of thousands of website tests.
What is not tested?
The tests are based purely on the structural integrity of websites, this does not include issues such as how easy it is to get information, how many hits a site gets through search engines, or if the design is easy on the eye.